The University of Arizona

The frontiers of North America’s fossil fuel boom: BP, Tar Sands, and the re-industrialization of the Calumet Region

Graham Pickren


This article focuses in on the ways in which the North American energy boom is reworking environments and livelihoods in the Great Lakes, focusing in particular on the expansion of BP's Chicago-area refinery as it has pivoted towards processing Canadian tar sands oil. In examining this 're-industrialization', the article contributes to an ongoing discussion about the relationship between fossil fuels, limits to capitalism, and the importance of frontiers in resolving capitalist crises. The first empirical section of the article looks at the early history of the Calumet's development as a hub for fossil fuel distribution and refining and, drawing from Moore's 'world-ecology framework', demonstrates the ways in the appropriation of unpaid work/energy - in particular the appropriation of the wetlands that make up the southern tip of Lake Michigan - serves as the underappreciated condition of possibility for the BP Whiting refinery's existence. Today, this combination of productivity and plunder continues in the region, illustrating urban metabolisms that are not confined to the city. In the second empirical section of the article, I argue that despite predictions of crises arising from declining ecological surpluses, in Calumet today, BP is finding new frontiers of surplus value production, both in the form of producing petcoke and in continued geographic expansion in the region. As a way of understanding the persistence and adaptive capacity of capital, even in degraded landscapes like Calumet, I consider Johnson's concept of 'accumulation by degradation' as an excellent tool for understanding dynamics in the region. The production of both petcoke and pollution – undesirable from a social and ecological perspective – sustain BP's industrial colonialism in the region because they ensure weakened competition and below market rents that allow for expansion and place-based longevity.

Keywords: tar sands, oil, refining, appropriation, accumulation by degradation, Chicago

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